127 Hours

127 Hours

****

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

If there’s one thing Danny Boyle does well, it’s entertain. From his still-stunning big screen debut Shallow Grave through to the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire his films, while often thought-provoking and unconventional, have never neglected the old-style Hollywood imperative: give ‘em a thrill a minute.

It’s a testament to his virtuoso skill as a director that he pulls this feat off again while telling a story that’s essentially about one character in one situation – albeit a compelling one. But in 127 Hours the ‘everything including the kitchen sink’ approach does lead to a slight case of sensory overload which actually detracts from the simple human story at its heart.

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‘A thrill a minute’ was undoubtedly the motto by which Aron Ralston lived his life. An extreme sports enthusiast and lover of America’s wild places since childhood, he’d think nothing of taking off for a long weekend of cycling and climbing across territory that could still be classed as a wilderness.

Unfortunately, in April 2003 he thought nothing of it to such an extent that no one – friends, family, emergency services – knew he was ‘canyoneering’ in the wilds of Utah. The film’s kinetic opening shots of teeming speeded-up crowds and Ralston (James Franco) dashing full-tilt towards his latest date with danger are in stark contrast to the stasis and isolation to come. They also paint a portrait of a very 21st century boy – a gadgeted-up adrenaline junkie speeding through life supremely confident in his ability to cope with anything.

He drives, then cycles, to the middle of nowhere, pausing only to help out (and flirt with) a couple of lost backpackers (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara). Then he starts climbing, feeling pretty good with himself and the world – until a missed step plunges him down a crevasse and dislodges a huge boulder that pins him to the canyon wall by his right arm.

Confronted by two physical absolutes – he can’t free his arm and the boulder’s too heavy to move – he quickly realises that he’s trapped and alone, with no prospect of anyone even thinking he might be in trouble for days. He has no phone (and it’s a signal black spot anyway); he’s got plenty of other gadgets but not much in the way of survival tools; and his food and water are barely enough to last a day. As he succinctly puts it: “Pretty deep do-doo”.

His initial attempts to find an answer – rigging up pulleys with his climbing ropes, trying to chip some leverage in the rock with a very blunt penknife – are a masterclass in how much tension you can rack up with a single actor in a single, very confined, location. You are definitely right there with Aron as he finds out just how draining and frustrating the simplest actions can be in extremis. And how quickly a can-do “don’t sweat it, dude” approach to life can change to impotent anger and despair in the face of an unyielding, indifferent universe.

As the water runs low and his pain and fatigue build he videos himself in an attempt to stay sane and connected. But the images blur and coalesce in a middle section that mirrors his declining mental state – surreal dream sequences, montages of childhood memories and flashbacks to the times when he was off-hand and uncaring with the people closest to him, particularly his parents and his former girlfriend (Clémence Poésy).

As I said, these scenes, while as visually thrilling and imaginative as anything Boyle’s ever done, tend to detract a little from the stark drama at the film’s core. But they do create a sense of the joy that Aron has known in his life before and the possibilities that a life to come might hold. If he can manage to get himself free, of course.

The director is helped immensely in all this by his leading man. Franco has been a revelation as an actor in recent years, escaping the ‘Spider-Man sidekick’ square-jawed jock roles with subtler, more challenging performances in the likes of Milk and the forthcoming Howl. Placed completely centre-stage here, his Aron is a fascinating character – outwardly successful and in control, but forced in adversity to confront how shallow and self-regarding he has been. But does he deserve to die an agonising and solitary death because of that? You’ll be rooting for him when he determines that he’ll escape whatever it costs – and takes another look at that blunt penknife...

The script, by Full Monty and Slumdog scribe Simon Beaufoy is undoubtedly in the key of ‘uplift’. But as in Slumdog there’s a sense that the feelgood elements have been hard-won. It’s a gruelling watch (perhaps not for the squeamish, or indeed the claustrophobic) and it doesn’t shy away from considering that the protagonist brought it on himself. It doesn’t have the epic feel or quite the same level of human engagement as Slumdog or 28 Days Later and lacks the sheer anarchic verve of early classics like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.

But if, like me, you’re a fully paid-up member of the Boyle fan club, this still has all the things you go to his movies for – imagination, heart, humour and a constant desire to try something new. I’ve no idea what he’ll want to do when he next gets behind the camera. But I can’t wait to find out.

Reviewed on: 29 Oct 2010
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127 Hours packshot
The truer story of Aron Ralston, a climber who had to resort to desperate measures when trapped by a boulder.
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Director: Danny Boyle

Writer: Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy, Aron Ralston

Starring: James Franco, Clémence Poésy, Amber Tambyln, Kate Mara

Year: 2010

Runtime: 94 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US, UK

Festivals:

London 2010

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